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Welcome to Terror High

What happens when a funding crunch turns a high school into a recruitment complex for arms manufacturers?

By Malcolm Harris


(Photo: College of DuPage/Flickr)

Imagine you run a public high school with a middling reputation. You struggle with getting poor kids to engage and graduate as well as convincing rich families not to make use of private alternatives. It’s either come up with a low-cost gimmick or risk being labeled an unemployment factory and expose your belly to the talons of charter school “reformers.” Staying the course is not an option.

At one high school just outside of Washington, D.C., they chose the gimmick — a theme for the school that’s buzzy and also represents the only category of federal jobs still growing: terrorism and the prevention thereof. For her book A Curriculum of Fear: Homeland Security in U.S. Public Schools, University of Illinois–Chicago education professor Nicole Nguyen embedded in the school’s homeland security program, chatting up administrators, teachers, and students under the guise of studying their innovative approach (rather than their scary warmongering, which is closer to the truth). Nguyen didn’t expect to like what she found, but I can’t imagine there’s any critic of American education or the United States military who wouldn’t still be surprised by what’s happening at the school Nguyen pseudonymously refers to as Milton.

At Milton, teachers start openly recruiting for the homeland security program when students are in middle school, and it’s not hard to convince a couple of classes’ worth of 13-year-olds to sign up for the terrorism track. As freshmen and sophomores, students in the program take Homeland Security 1 and 2 to give them an overview of the topic, then specialize in career-oriented tracks like Geographic Information Systems, criminal justice, or engineering. But counter-terrorism expands in every direction: A “whole school” model means every teacher is asked to incorporate anti-insurgency themes, and a “pipeline initiative” aims to reach even kindergartners. A detachment of military police patrols the halls.

“There is something deeply disturbing about such a militarized education,” Nguyen says. “It will produce young people who think war is normal, who think violence is normal, who want to advance that violence.”

You might be wondering: How would any of that even work? One industry adviser explains to Nguyen: “Instead of math class you’re doing 1 + 1, put that emergency management twist to it: 1 fire truck + 1 fire truck = 2 fire trucks.” The homeland security makeover transforms the parabola of a thrown football into the arc of an American sniper’s bullet in North Korea. Even Romeo and Juliet gets the “emergency management twist,” as an English teacher outlines a mini-lesson on deadly Victorian-era pathogens. The drumbeat is relentless: The homeland must be defended. “Students arrive at this position where they weren’t questioning what was being presented to them,” Nguyen tells me. “All of this was framed as good for them, good for their community, good for their school. And if they were good citizens they would not only buy into this program and buy into its practices and procedures but contribute.” I don’t know what they’re building at Milton, but it’s not democratic citizens.

You don’t need to be a hippie to think there’s something off about treating counter-terrorism as the center of a normal secondary education. At one point in Nguyen’s observations, a visiting local colonel applauds the homeland security students by repeating in earnest a speech about the difference between a citizen and a civilian from the movie Starship Troopers. (The movie is a satire of a future fascist society; that scene in particular is a lampoon of self-serious military education.) But Milton High is situated right near (also pseudonymous) Fort Milton, and many students come from military families. For administrators, a homeland security theme was a natural fit.


A Curriculum of Fear: Homeland Security in U.S. Public Schools. (Photo: University of Minnesota Press)

The military as well as civilian agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency provide resources, guest lecturers, field trips, and assistance in developing the courses, but they’re not the audience that Milton High is really trying to impress. Nguyen describes the curriculum as “tailored to meet the needs of the industry.” The industry in question is the homeland security industry, an extension of the military-industrial complex that this country invented after 9/11. The whole sector has existed for less than 15 years and it already has its own public K-12 feeder system. Of course, the military-industrial complex has long been a major part of the D.C.-area economy — you can’t take the yellow line without running into weapon advertisements geared at the Pentagon procurement officers who ride that route, for example. When a sophomore named Tyrell tells Nguyen that he wants to work at the arms manufacturer Northrop Grumman, she asks him why. Tyrell explains that Northrop employees came to his class every year throughout elementary school to talk about the perks of working there.

Patriotism and militarism move Milton students to sign up for the homeland security program, but based on Nguyen’s observations it’s often economics that plays a decisive role. These kids are constantly thinking about their futures, in particular their job prospects. Homeland security is a career-focused track, and while normal high school teachers are reluctant to talk salaries, teachers in the program (as well as industry guests) offer a detailed picture of upper-middle-class lifetime stability. “Homeland security jobs are glorified within the community,” Nguyen says. “It’s communicated to them that these people make a lot of money. They travel, they live a good life. For students who come from poor and working-class backgrounds, the prospect of job security and a reliable salary was attractive.” One 11th-grader, Tiffany, told Nguyen what she expected to do with her certificate in Geographic Information Systems: “Makin’ money makin’ maps. I don’t have a problem with that.”

When faculty were talking to Nguyen, she says they were less optimistic about their students’ career prospects:

Across the board, administrators and teachers told students: “If you work really hard in the program, if you qualify for a security clearance, you will get a national security job. There’s just hundreds of national security jobs out there, you will qualify for something and you will gain some kind of job.” So that was a narrative that was sold to students. I had one teacher who said to me, “Well, these kids are never going to qualify for security clearances. They have criminal backgrounds or there’s a whole host of reasons why they’ll never get a security clearance.” There’s a program coordinator who said, “Maybe one or two of them will go to college and get these high-level jobs, but for the most part we’re giving students a boost to ensure that they graduate, and maybe they get some kind of low-level stable job, like TSA or Border Patrol agents.”

From the perspective of paint-by-numbers education reform, the Milton program seems to hit all the metrics: They’re working with employers and the government, providing students with access to cutting-edge technology, and making the curriculum relevant. It’s also horrifying. “There is something deeply disturbing about such a militarized education,” Nguyen says. “It will produce young people who think war is normal, who think violence is normal, who want to advance that violence, and have no other way of interpreting the world and their place in it except through this frame of national security.” If education involves the inculcation of critical thinking skills, then the students of Milton High aren’t getting an education; they’re being trained.